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Protagonists, Goals, and Conviction

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 29 2013 · 393 views

Essays, Not Rants! 067: Protagonists, Goals, and Conviction
Let’s talk about the characters in The Last of Us. Because I still want to talk about that game. For the sake of direction, we’ll focus on Joel and Ellie, because they’re the protagonists (and arguably each other’s antagonist) and you spend nearly eighteen hours with them.
I’m going to try to keep this mostly spoiler-free, but since this’ll be discussing characters and arcs and development, be warned of mentions and implications and stuff. If you’re playing the game right now or are planning to in the near future, might be best to avoid this.
So. Characters.
The dynamic of Joel and Ellie is not like Batman/Robin’s hero/sideckick or even a sort of Riggs/Murtaugh case of contrasting partners. Sure, they have their joint task of getting Ellie to the Fireflies, but there’s nothing personal to that; it’s what they’ve been told to do. That hardly makes for interesting characters. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character has to want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So what do Joel and Ellie want?
Ellie’s goal is made clear in early conversations: she wants her life to be for something; she doesn’t want to just exist. Like all good goals, it sheds a lot of light on her character. See, Ellie was born after the outbreak, she’s used to a world where people have resigned themselves to the bleak status quo (and eventual death). She wants more than that.
Joel’s goal is more fluid. At the outset, he’s content to just get by. Enter Ellie, the other protagonist. She’s serves as his antagonist just as he does hers; she interferes with his life and forces him to find a new goal and he is the catalyst for her ability to journey after her goal. Joel can no longer live just for the sake of surviving, he has to change. There are no other candidates for an antagonist in the game; the Infected, hunters, and other enemies are exactly that: enemies without personification. Eventually, Joel does change and he does achieve his new goal, he finds a new reason to live.
What complicates this is that Ellie’s goal cannot coexist with Joel’s new goal. Joel now wants to protect Ellie best he can, but this protection means that Ellie cannot do the thing she thinks she might be meant to do. Now we see Joel as Ellie’s antagonist in full. There’s tension in the dynamic but no enmity; rather it’s iron sharpening iron as Joel and Ellie rub off on each other and challenge the other to do more as they forge their pseudo-father/daughter relationship.
The Last of Us, however, merrily subverts any innate expectation a player might have of that dynamic. Ellie doesn’t sit around waiting for Joel to save her: she’ll often stab people in the back or save Joel from a dead end. But, like Elena and Chloe from Naughty Dog’s other PS3 games, Ellie’s not just there for support or a sort of surrogate daughter but a strong character in her own right. Her cheerfulness masks a strong sense of survival’s guilt (which, again, stems from her want). She’s used to the violence littering the post-apocalyptic world but she’ll still wince at Joel’s brutality. Neil Druckmann wrote a character who’s incredibly interesting, and, yes, happens to be a woman in a video game. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that she’s never portrayed patronizingly or as an act of affirmative action. More so than Joel, Ellie has a sense of personal direction for much of the game. Though she’s not quite sure where she’s going, she has a conviction about her life.
Interestingly, Joel lacks much of this conviction. More interestingly, he’s the character you play as for almost the entirety of the game. In The Last of Us you only play as a character when their conviction is shaken and they’re not entirely sure what they should do. Often Joel’s not even sure how to get somewhere and is following someone else’s lead. He’s listless and without any driving force for much of the game. He’s looking for a reason to survive, remember?
Contrast this with Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s going after the treasure or saving the world (he’s a little sketchy on the how) or Halo’s Master Chief who has a very clear direction of defeat the bad guys and save the world. This is what sets The Last of Us apart, the perennial “what now?” And where do we see this the most? In the characters: the complex, layered characters of The Last of Us.

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I must say that when I played Bioshock Infinite, I thought that there was no way a better game could be made all year. But then I played The Last of Us. Holy cow! What an experience. I agree with everything you say. The characters just feel so honest. I never felt like Druckmann was copping out with his storytelling. I never felt cheated like I do in most stories and most video game stories because some characters make choices they have no reason to. Every part of the world of The Last of Us felt grounded to earth in reality and honesty. And then, of course, mix in the fact that the gameplay is very nearly flawless. I can honestly say that this is the best game I've ever played and is possibly even the best game ever made. I loved every moment of it.


Also, dat ending.

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Jun 30 2013 04:38 AM
Before leaving the states for the summer I stocked up on video games (Tomb Raider, Dishonored, Spec Ops: The Line, Journey, BioShock Infinite [and the original BioShock]). I bought The Last of Us digitally.

And yeah, I am really enjoying Infinite, I just find that it lacks a bit of the polish and just sheer WOW of The Last of Us.

I love the Uncharted games and was wary of The Last of Us the same way I was wary of Up after Wall-E, but, dang. Dat game. And dat ending.

I wanna play it again so bad but I'm trying to let myself recover from all the emotional trauma.
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I feel like Infinite is more ambitious in some aspects compared to The Last of Us. Whereas The Last of Us is sort of a mish-mash of things we've seen before, but done so perfectly that I don't mind. The one gameplay feature Infinite does better is companion AI. It was slightly annoying for Joel to be sneaking around Clickers while Ellie keeps running about and talking to him. Elizabeth in Infinite isn't perfect, but she feels more like an actual gameplay companion than Ellie.


I can't go back and play Tomb Raider after playing The Last of Us, because they're similar in a lot of tonal ways, but Tomb Raider's characters are so underdeveloped in comparison.


And yeah, immediately after I finished The Last of Us I told myself I would never play it again, because that would be a disservice to the narrative, but now I really want to play it again. It's just so good. It is the game that every other game from now on will be compared against.

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Scanty Demon
Jun 30 2013 06:54 PM
Congrats on getting Spec Ops: The Line that game will take all your expectations of a shooter and toss them into a huge fire yelling "Enough of these losers!" Honestly the story is good (depressing emotionally) that the cynical Zahtzee (of Zero Punctaution who hates every game) was depressed and said he felt physically sick. Okay that last bit may have been an exaggeration but he did name Spec Ops as his game of the year for 2012. The only downside the gameplay is nothing innovative though the executions actually show the story progressing. That and it may be hard to play the game after knowing all the bad things that go down because you seem to get to used to them. But yeah great game if like story telling and depressing narratives.
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I too have heard many good things about Spec Ops. Lots of comparisons to Heart of Darkness. I'll have to play it one of these days.

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Jul 01 2013 11:30 AM
Really? Thus far (I just spoke with the siren, if that's a reference) it's a great story and game, but nothing quite like what The Last of Us did. I'm also starting to fall in love with Elizabeth, haha. WHY YES I WOULD LIKE A MEDKIT.

I think what The Last of Us did was dare to not be fun. With Infinite I enjoy firefights and look forward to them, y'know? But in The Last of Us I began to really want to avoid conflict. Combat was great and all, but you really started to feel that emotional toll. Bits like that. I'll reserve judgement till I finish the game.

Really looking forward to Tomb Raider, since it looks a little Uncharted-y and Lara Craft doesn't seem to just be Indiana Jones with boobs and a butt. And I like baddonkey women.

And Scanty Panty; yeah, so I've heard. Like SZ said, the Heart of Darkness adaption is almost is has me excited. I'm not a fan of the book (there's only one page that's worth reading), but I attribute that to my lack of patience with Conrad's writing rather than a lousy story. S'yeah. Video games.
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Yeah, don't get me wrong. I love Bioshock Infinite so much. I love Elizabeth. I think she's one of the best written characters out there. And the whole world is done very well. It was very ambitious to come up with a whole world and politics up in a city in the sky.


But yeah, The Last of Us is perfect in nearly every way. The tone of oppressing depression is done perfectly. Towards the end I just wanted to run through levels because I cared for the characters so much and didn't want them to get hurt. And where Infinite has a couple really good characters, but every single character in The Last of Us is fleshed out and REALLY interesting.


However, I must say that the last third of Infinite will take you for a ride. So you may change your mind.


And yeah, Tomb Raider is an Uncharted copy-cat, but Uncharted is a Tomb Raider copy-cat. So there's that. And it's a good game, but I won't play it again after playing The Last of Us. The quality, characters, and amount of polish is just not there in Tomb Raider.

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